We were sitting on a charpoy in the fading evening light. Above our heads, a canopy of bright green fluttering neem leaves. The blazing heat of the day was finally dispersing, leaving in its wake a gentle breeze that carried the musky smell of muddy straw-topped huts. A babble of chatter emerged from the crowd that surrounded us: the crowd that always gathered whenever we entered a village. Many of the children, even adults, had never seen a foreigner. If my skin was white, I feel sure the reaction would have been even more curious. The camera, too, drew inquisitive stares that quickly melted into raptures of delight at the images, which gazed just as inquisitively back at them.
Bitti Devi sat tall and proud. Bedecked in a rather regal bright blue sari that partly covered the deep purple blouse beneath it. A faint grin curled the corners of her mouth revealing a row of straight teeth that sloped attractively inwards, her deep brown eyes alive with zeal.
It wasn’t long before her hearty, rasping laugh billowed outwards, filled with a force that was instantly striking. She had just been asked her age.
Don’t ask me my age! I won’t tell you.
She grinned humorously, looking around as others in the crowd chipped in: “she’s between 35 and 40. Better round it up to 40”, they giggled. Bitti Devi is already a grandmother.
She decided, or perhaps deigned, to tell us a little more.
I was married when I was 14, and my eldest daughter is already married with a son. He’s a year old now, and is starting to walk. I have three other children too; another daughter and two sons. I’ll get my second daughter married soon… and then my son.
The crowd around us laughed as she pointed out her rather small looking children in the crowd.
I asked her whether things had changed much over her lifetime here.
Not much has changed here. Well, maybe a few things. Our houses used to all be made of mud before and the clothes we wear have changed, too. There have been lots of these sort of changes. Some of the houses have been reconstructed since the boys have started earning. Those with God’s blessing have renovated their homes, and the others who are not in a good financial situation are still living in their old houses.
The crowd, quieter now, was paying close attention – chipping in from time to time – as Bitti Devi told us a little about her work.
I have been working on the land all my life. We have our own business here, with two acres on rent. I have no money for labour so I can’t employ anyone on my fields. That means I labour myself, and sometimes I work in other people’s fields, too. I get Rs100-150 a day, and so does my husband. With the rest of my time I look after my children. That’s also work, you know!
She laughed again, and continued.
Things have changed with the way we farm. In the past, we used to just farm one type of grain, called jindhree. But now we farm 3-4 kinds of grain, including dhan. Before, we only used manure on the fields but now we use urea, which gives us better yields. All kinds of changes are happening on that front.
But our fortunes are very dependent on the weather. When the rains are good, the crops do well. But when there is little rain, the yield is not so good. It’s hard for us, because the landowner doesn’t give a proper water supply and we have no money to pump water from the ground.
I asked her whether she was happy farming and her answer, as with so much about her, came forth direct and clear.
I don’t want to farm. But there are no other options for us. If we could find a way to change, we would. Though it’s said there is money out there, that other work exists, I haven’t found any. We have no alternatives. Many of us would like to do something else, and if we could find jobs, we would definitely take them up. I would do something else with a lot of happiness.
I believe there’s a lot of money out there and if only my son can study well, he can go out and earn so that he’ll be safe. I want my children to study well, to marry well, to get established and settled. It’s my first priority.
Everyone wants one thing in life: a peaceful life. But a person can only get it if God grants it. I think God is inside you, and not in these religious places. God is in every particle.
It’s true. Everyone wants a peaceful life.
Her words about God left me wanting to ask another question, wondering what she thought was the meaning of it all… of life? Her answer came swiftly, with little pause.
I am not educated, so I can’t answer this. But I think God sent us here. We have the blessings of our ancestors and that is why we are here.
I won’t forget her humour, strength or spirit in a long while, nor the lack of choice she feels in her life that seems to limit her possibilities so.